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2008 graduation ceremony address – Liz Byrski

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Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, staff of the University, graduands and your families, distinguished guests, I’m honoured to have been invited to speak to you this evening.

One of the things I enjoy most about being a member of the university staff is the opportunity to work with people who are embarking upon or have reached significant stages in their tertiary education.

Be it the beginning of a Bachelors degree or the final stages of a PhD, our students are at important and often daunting stages in a journey that will have lasting effects on their lives. It’s a responsibility and a privilege that my colleagues and I do not take lightly.

Each year we meet new students coping with the culture shock of entering university from high school or from very different professions. Some are rendered speechless by the experience, while others, I suspect, hide behind the mask of a confidence they don’t feel. Then there are the quiet, thoughtful ones who take it all one day at a time and don’t reveal much, and we can’t tell whether they are thriving or dying inside.

If you think back to your early days here at Curtin you can probably recall how it felt and how, at the time, the prospect of graduation seemed impossibly far away; perhaps you thought you would never make it.

Well, tonight we celebrate the fact that you have made it. You came through and you have earned something very significant for those years of hard work.

In some respects tonight is an ending, but more importantly it is a beginning, perhaps the start of another stage in your academic career, or the step out into the professional world beyond the university. So I’d like to share with you some thoughts about that next stage.

I want to talk about the power of the imagination – the power we each have to imagine ourselves – and to imagine and enact change in the world around us.

In the nineteen-seventies the distinguished writer and critic Susan Sontag wrote a now famous essay titled The Double Standard of Ageing. In that essay she argued that ageing is largely an ‘ordeal of the imagination’, and that the ordeal was greater for women than for men because of the way that ‘society limits the ways in which women feel free to imagine themselves’.

Now, I realise that there will be very few graduates here tonight for whom ageing is currently an issue of concern. But I want to consider those ideas of the ordeal of imagination, and the limits of the ways in which both men and women of all ages feel free to imagine themselves.

I grew up at a time when there were some very rigid and limited ideas about what women could imagine for themselves. So when, at 16, I told my parents I wanted to be a writer my father was horrified. Being a writer, he said, was not a real job; I would never earn a living and would become a burden on the economy. My mother, equally horrified, focused on the really serious side of life. Women writers, she said, were bossy, interfering and opinionated, and no one would marry me. And so, like many girls of my age, I was offered the choice of being a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. I became a bored and inefficient secretary.

At the time there were many people who, for reasons of race, gender, physical disability, age or social class, encountered the limits of what we could imagine. And this was true not only of women; the expectations and aspirations of young men could certainly roam across a broader landscape, but they too were subject to proscription. Some of the careers that men choose today would have been frowned on as inappropriate as recently as the dawn of the 1960s.

But some women and men chose to defy the acceptable limits of imagination and crashed through in all sorts of ways and in a variety of different occupations. Some had the advantages of a university education, others did not. I am one of the latter.

I was not a bold young woman, but as I languished in the offices of an airline at Gatwick Airport I was bold enough to imagine that one way to become a writer might be to become a journalist. I was intrigued by the Reuter’s Press Agency journalist who appeared daily in our office begging to use my phone to phone through his copy, and so I asked him how I too might become a journalist. He told me to get out into the local area at weekends, find a few stories and sell them to the local paper.

Once again my parents were horrified; they considered that journalism was unsuitable for a girl, at least for a nice girl, because it involved poking your nose into other people’s business. Something I hadn’t considered until then but which obviously made it even more attractive!

Well, I found those stories and I did manage to sell them to the local paper, at the vast rate of threepence a column inch. And that, for me, was how it all began. Within months I had a job and I became, a nosy journalist poking my nose into other people’s business and loving it, and many years later I eventually found my way to the sort of writing life I had originally imagined. But I have no hesitation in saying that I still regret the fact that I did not begin my life as a writer with the advantage of a university degree.

A great deal has changed in the more than four decades since then, but the world is still littered with blind spots which will test the limits of your imagination and your faith in yourself.

What I hope for you, and what I honestly believe, is that your time here at Curtin has provided you not only with knowledge, but with critical and analytical skills and understandings to enable you to use that knowledge in significant ways. That it has given you the perception and the creativity to defy the limits, and feel free to imagine yourselves as you want to be.

You may be graduating tonight with a degree that is strongly vocational or one that is less specialised. If you hold to the power of imagination you can pursue your chosen career to the heights, or pursue other very different disciplines and goals that attract you. What you have learned here has equipped you to respond to and seek out opportunities that that can take you wherever you want to go and to places you have not yet imagined.

This is, in so many ways, an uneven and unequal world in which we live, and into which you bring the fruits of your study. Every generation faces challenges and obstacles, and every generation must find solutions. You can be a part of those solutions in a world that is changing dramatically and unexpectedly.

Just when we were starting to take for granted a decade of nearly unprecedented global growth, we now find ourselves teetering on the edge of global recession. I believe that as we face this financial crisis, along with the ecological disasters of climate change, the threats of tribalism and terrorism, the obscenity of grinding poverty for many and unlimited wealth for a few, we must look beyond short term, quick fixes, but to the causes.

In the past people’s loyalties were to their local surroundings, their region, their state and then their nation. But today we need to look beyond those boundaries to our interdependence, and to our role in the global community.

The futurist Dr Peter Ellyard, talks of the need to think and talk in planetary terms, and about the importance of creating and defining the rules for good planetary behaviour.

‘We live,’ he suggests ‘on a planetary spaceship and we have to get along with the other passengers whether or not we like each other.’ In a world that is increasingly globalised and interdependent – this challenge is greater than ever.

Your university education places you in a position to make positive contributions to the future, in both small ways and large. You can be the leaders, the policy makers, the decision makers. Whether you choose the arts or social sciences, politics, business or government, architecture or accounting, literature, nursing, communications, education, librarianship, or any of the disciplines in which your peers have graduated tonight you can be heroes, you can lead and influence others.

Just and holistic solutions are born and nourished when people of intelligence and integrity bring their creativity, their compassion and their humanity to their chosen course. When they can make the leap of imagination that allows them to put themselves in others’ shoes. It comes when we imagine something better, not simply for ourselves and those we hold close, but for others whom we will never meet.

It’s a challenge, a responsibility and a thrilling opportunity to bring your education and imagination to bear on the issues that shape our world.

And so I wish you luck and I wish you success. I know that the time you have spent here at Curtin can ensure that you defy the limits and feel free to imagine yourselves as you wish to be.

It’s been a long road and a lot of hard work since you first imagined yourself sitting here tonight. Congratulations on getting here – and congratulations on your graduation.

Good luck, take care, celebrate and have fun.

Thank you.